Austria's most illustrious jazz export
Jon Lusk 2008
Austria's most illustrious jazz export recorded most of this double live CD on his 75th birthday in Lugano, Switzerland, just over two months before his death from cancer on 11th September, 2007. Seated behind his trademark bank of synths, with his trusty vocoder close to hand, he's joined by the veritable United Nations of world groove that then made up The Zawinul Syndicate, the world/jazz fusion outfit that evolved around him after he left the seminal group Weather Report in 1985. Their rather muscular set revisits his career in both bands, with a few surprises thrown in.
After a wailing intro, things get into gear on an impressively propulsive Orient Express, which sets the generally upbeat mood. The oddly titled Madagascar doesn't attempt to evoke the music of that country, although it does have some engaging changes. For a more convincingly African ambience, Ivory Coast-born percussionist Paco Sery eschews his (occasionally heavy-handed) drumming in favour of a kalimba (thumb piano) on Zansa 11, conversing with and being echoed by Zawinul. Even if Zawinul's chosen synth timbres aren't always appealing, he's a noticeably democratic bandleader, preferring to spar with colleagues rather than grandstanding over them, and often just vamping, ruminating or dropping in atmospheric keyboard stabs while others take the limelight, as does funksome bassist Linley Marthe on Scarlet Woman.
To be frank, I'm not mad about his taste in voices, either – especially Moroccan Aziz Sahmaoui and Zap Mama's Sabine Kabongo – although Alegre Correa is an agreeable enough presence on his own samba Clario. There's a predictably mawkish Happy Birthday, which happily turns into a frenzied percussive breakdown. And there's a beautifully serene 14-minute duo version of In A Silent Way between Zawinul and his long-term associate Wayne Shorter on soprano sax – recorded the following month in Hungary.
It's a shame there aren't a few more reflective moments like it, which means that 75th isn't the best place to approach Zawinul's music from. This is a brave 'rage against the dying of the light', and novices are advised to first check last year's excellent Weather Report compilation Forecast: Tomorrow.